Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Press Feeding Frenzy

It's the most anticipated art journalists' eating opportunity since the Maltz Museum at Per Se: Director Michael Brand of the Getty Museum hosts a 9 a.m. press breakfast tomorrow at the hot new Le Cirque. Does Sirio Maccioni get up this early?

The ostensible purpose of the repast is to discuss an exhibition opening at the Getty in November, "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai."

But it's also a chance for Brand to meet hungry New York scribes. (I did dine at his table previously, back when Brand was director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.) What do you think we'll now be asking about?

If nothing else, CultureGrrl will be able to regale you with her first restaurant review. After all, Le Cirque claims to be the place "where the worlds of food, fashion, art and culture converge."

Do you think they'll bring me a special order of Dunkin' Donuts?


The Tainted Source

It's the worst-case abuses (think Enron) that often wind up causing reforms that change the rules for everyone, even those who are relatively blameless.

This dynamic is at work in the new self-imposed strictures that museums are applying to their acquisitions of unprovenanced antiquities.

But a new antiquities-related scandal, reported yesterday in the New York Times, could swing the pendulum the other way---back towards museums' argument that they are the best stewards for the world's cultural patrimony.

The Lydian Hoard, which the Metropolitan Museum's director, Philippe de Montebello, recently discussed at a New York antiquities symposium, has apparently been seen in Turkey by even fewer people than he had imagined: It's been alleged that a number of the objects repatriated in 1993, under duress, by the Met to Turkey were later stolen from the Archeological Museum in Usak and replaced with replicas. The director of the museum himself, Kazim Akbiyikoglu, is one of those detained as suspects, the Times reports.

Rightful owners are rightful owners. But it's hard to argue for the superior claims of source countries, unless they can be counted on to care for their cultural patrimony with the same diligence with which they seek its return.


The High Does It Right

I've been pretty low on the High (here and here), so lets give some overdue credit to what the recently expanded museum in Atlanta has done well: reinstalling its permanent collection.

As its own director, Michael Shapiro, has conceded, the High Museum of Art will never have a collection comparable to the great American museums that had a head start collecting on a grand scale. But what it does have, including particularly strong holdings of folk art and decorative arts, is now arrayed intelligently, even thought-provokingly, with admirable integration of all media---paintings, works on paper, sculpture.

Overseen by the High's chief curator, David Brenneman, this chronological reinstallation corrects major gaffes by the previous director, Ned Rifkin, whose ill-conceived thematic rehang was inspired by the much debunked "Rings: Five Passions in World Art" (an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art's former director, the late J. Carter Brown, in conjunction with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta). The thematic straitjacket exiled major works to storage, because they didn’t conform with the concepts.

Brenneman told me that he tried to juxtapose "works that talk to each other" and he succeeded. He also opined that the High is "a community museum at heart."

As such, it should place more emphasis on community-based projects---those conceived by its very capable in-house curatorial talent, rather than those packaged by money-driven purveyors of blockbusters.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


The Atrium That Ate the Morgan

Better late than never, you can now read my take on Renzo Piano's expansion of the Morgan Library and Museum on the second page of the Front Page section of the June issue of Art in America. If you have the hard copy of the magazine, look on Page 45. The title of the piece, above, gives you some notion of my reliably contrarian view.


Flirting with CultureGrrl

Oh my! CultureGrrl has an ardent suitor---a major, popular purveyor of blogs. Should I duck under an umbrella? Decisions, decisions.


Curators of the World Unite!

Here's a cause for the Association of Art Museum Curators: I have long believed that curators should get credit, by name, on the introductory wall text of exhibitions they organize. I wouldn't produce work without a byline. Why should they?

This thought occurred to me again, as it has many times before, at the revelatory Pollock drawings show at the Guggenheim Museum (mentioned below). A long list of corporate and individual sponsors gets plenty of wall space at the entrance, but not Susan Davidson, who, more than the funders, really did make it all possible.

Credit where credit is due, CultureGrrl always says.


Now at the Guggenheim: MoMA's Dumped Pollock

Probably the most regrettable of the Museum of Modern Art's misguided auction disposals of nine paintings in 2004 was its casting off of Jackson Pollock's "Number 12, 1949." Retired dealer Eugene Thaw, an honorary trustee of MoMA and co-editor of Pollock's catalogue raisonné (quoted in my May 13, 2004 Wall Street Journal article, The Lost Museum: MoMA's Distressing Disposals) predicted that this sale "will come back to haunt them."

Now it has.

MoMA's $11.66-million cast-off has a starring role in the Guggenheim Museum's resoundingly major retrospective-in-miniature, No Limit, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper, to Sept. 29. Created during the apogee year of Pollock's brief career, "Number 12, 1949" more than holds its own on the wall that is the show's focal point---a line-up of six signature abstractions that make the approximately 60 other works in the exhibition seem like prelude and postlude. It is nestled between a work owned by the the Pompidou Center in Paris and one that the Guggenheim acquired as a gift from Sylvia and Joseph Slifka in 2004, the year of MoMA's disposal. The Guggenheim is celebrating its important acquisition through this exhibition.

All this makes MoMA's jilted Pollock a textbook case of deplorable deaccessioning---the sale from the public to the private domain of a work of undeniably major museum quality. Even the Guggenheim, which borrowed the work, hasn't a clue about who now owns it: The museum unearthed it through exhibition curator Susan Davidson's fortunate dinner encounter with an intermediary.

When I asked how they felt about MoMA's prior sale of a painting they had singled out for prominent display, both Davidson and Lisa Dennison, director of the Guggenheim, opined that MoMA has better examples.

Not true: MoMA now owns no classic drip Pollocks on paper from the key year of 1949---works that were extolled in a MoMA-published book by Bernice Rose, the museum's own former drawings curator, as "gem-like" and "more adventurous in color" than the renowned large canvases. Thaw called them "absolutely the most lyrical of all the Pollocks."

It's time for MoMA to rethink its longstanding practice of selling major treasures to bankroll curatorial buying sprees. This latest proof of past folly should be the impetus for change.

Monday, May 29, 2006


The Grrl Returns

Yes, CultureGrrl groupies, I'm back.

Elgar was indeed played and my daughter did graduate Cornell, on the only gloriously sunny day of the weekend---a major accomplishment in famously weather-challenged Ithaca.

Between celebratory events, the incorrigible Grrl also managed to pop in on several worthwhile exhibitions on campus---at the I.M. Pei-designed Johnson Museum and at Olin Library.

There's a story here: how university museums often do a better job than traditional institutions in bringing their audiences into intimate contact with collections. More on Cornell, later in the week.

Speaking of The Grrl's groupies, I'm pleased to report that her fan-base is steadily expanding. Soon to come: the first CultureGrrl CD---75 irritating, uninterrupted minutes of kvetching. If you're one of my readers from Thailand, Korea, Japan, Australia or New Zealand (for real---my audience truly IS expanding), "kvetching" means "complaining and whining." And if you needed this translation, be sure to keep Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish close at hand for future reference!

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Strike Up the Elgar

It's "Pomp and Circumstances" for me this weekend. I'll be back to the keyboard on Tuesday, upon my return from my daughter's Cornell graduation!


Rethinking Antiquities (again)

Last Friday, I promised to revisit the subject of collecting antiquities this week. (Here, here and here are my other related posts.)

I have only this to add: Museums' assertions that they are now revising their policies because the times and the standards have changed are more than a little disingenuous. It seems clear that museums were always aware of (or at least suspected) the shady circumstances surrounding many of the objects they were offered. To say they acquired these in "good faith" is a stretch.

What HAS now changed is that these dicey dealings are being exposed and source countries are beginning to take vigorous action---assembling persuasive evidence and launching legal proceedings. Activities that previously didn't tarnish museums' reputations now do.

That's not to say I believe in the wholesale migration of museum objects back to the source countries, as readers of my previous musings know. This is truly an issue that cries out for compromise, because all sides have dirt on their hands---obviously the looters, but also the museums that deliberately didn't ask too many questions, and the authorities in the source countries, who for years notoriously neglected the urgent task of policing their own archaeological sites and porous borders.


New Link-up for the Grrl

CultureGrrl makes her debut today on that must-read compilation of arts press clips, ArtsJournal. Welcome all you cultural journalism buffs (and buff cultural journalists!).


Top 10 List: What's Not to Like About Mega-MoMA (Part II)

If you missed the first installment of this two-part series, please click here.

5) The Sleeping Giants---Serra, Kelly, Rosenquist: I had always thought (mistakenly, it seems) that one of the reasons for MoMA's vast new contemporary space was to provide room for semi-permanent display of the museum's three enormous, iconic works: James Rosenquist’s “F-111,” Ellsworth Kelly’s “Colors for a Large Wall” and Richard Serra’s “Intersection II.” But the Serra won't be shown until the opening of his retrospective in Summer 2007 and the Kelly and Rosenquist emerged on the sixth floor for MoMA's opening but then disappeared into storage.

4) Who Turned Off the Light? Abundance of natural light throughout the museum was initially touted as a crucial feature of the expansion. But that goal was largely abandoned. Yoshio Taniguchi’s original design, displayed in a model at the museum soon after he was selected as architect, featured stepped skylights, bringing sunlight into several floors of permanent collection galleries, as well as a large skylight illuminating the top floor. The curators decided that natural light would be too difficult and expensive to regulate. So we're left with some token skylights on the sixth floor and small, tinted windows in most of the galleries downstairs. The design galleries, however, were given a big picture window---the better to provide enticing views of its snazzy cars to passing pedestrians.

3) The Attack of the Atrium: This soaring lobby was supposed to give a sense of exhilaration and release. But one feels more oppressed than impressed by its impersonal, clunky monumentality. I'm not the first to complain about the huge, eye-numbing expanses of blank white walls. This cavernous barrenness was creepily captured on Richard McGuire's "Modern Art" cover for the Oct. 17, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.

2) The Secret Garden: MoMA's Philip Johnson-designed sculpture garden has always been one of New York's most treasured retreats. MoMA emphasized that the expansion would restore the garden to its past glory. So why did they obscure the best views of it, by installing fritted glass (which is not transparent, but is scored with opaque white lines) for the windows along its long axis? The garden view from inside the museum is also perversely blocked by the canopy overhanging the outdoor dining space of The Modern, MoMA's swanky new restaurant. Where the elite eat, this $82-$155 prix-fixe haven (merely $42-$52 for lunch) gets the best garden views.


1) Assorted Cheeses With Your Van Gogh? In an astounding display of misplaced priorities, MoMA has stationed Terrace 5, a purveyor of miniscule "mouthwatering desserts, artisanal chocolates, and a selection of savory bites, cocktails and wine," directly opposite the entrance to the gallery containing MoMA’s signature Cézannes and van Goghs. Disrupting contemplative visual pleasures with an assault on the other senses (food odors, tableware clatter, diners' chatter), it's ideally situated both to attract the most business and to affront serious visitors who come for the art, not the food.

I could probably find 10 more things to complain about (the misconceived layout of the coatroom, the glitchy circulation system, the continuously sliding glass doors), but enough is enough.

What I need to emphasize, though, is that MoMA still excels at the things that matter most: its superlative collection, its must-see shows, and the brilliance of its chief curator of painting and sculpture, John Elderfield, who makes me see artists whom I thought I knew in a revealing new light.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Top 10 List: What's Not to Like About Mega-MoMA (Part I)

And now, as promised in Friday's post, here's what irks me about the bigger, but not necessarily better, Museum of Modern Art. I'll skip the things you've already heard from the critical chorus: It's too corporate (it is). The admission fee is too high (ditto).

But let me preface this by saying that I think Glenn Lowry is an excellent, conscientious, diligent museum director, and (as my first gripe, below, indicates) he is admirably responsive to reasonable criticism (think Monet's "Water Lilies"). He once told me that he regarded many of the critiques of mega-MoMA as more a Rorschach test about the critic than an accurate reflection of the museum.

So, with apologies to Glenn---and with the expectation that he will now psychoanalyze me---here's my Letterman-style list of gripes (from least important to most important):

10) The Bathrooms: The sixth-floor bathroom was my first destination when I arrived at MoMA's opening press preview. It was not a good introduction to Yoshio Taniguchi's vaunted design skills: The corridor leading up to it was so narrow that you had to turn sideways to pass someone coming from the opposite direction; the entrance door to the ladies room did not close properly and had to be yanked open, because it got stuck in the doorframe; the sink spouts were so poorly designed that they routinely sent water cascading over the counter and down to the floor; the lighting was dingy. The worst gaffe: the coathook on the door of the wheelchair-accessible stall was up high, where a disabled person could not possibly reach. (This was also true of the wheelchair-accessible stalls on all the other floors.) I mentioned the hooks to Glenn. Next time I visited, each of those stalls bore a second, lower hook.

9) Slippery Floors: I've never asked others if they've had this problem, because I don't like to admit my own clumsiness. But twice, on different days, my feet skidded out from under me on the wood floors. (This was a good bone-density test.) Now I wear flats or walk VERY CAREFULLY. This has not been a problem for me at any other museum, and I've been to a lot!

8) Siberia Gallery: You know which one I mean? It's the one at the end of a very long corridor, past the photography galleries, at the far end of the museum. It opened with a show devoted to Taniguchi, and most recently housed the terrific Islamic art show, "Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking." Whatever gets put there gets marginalized, because it's so out of the loop.

7) The 54th-Street Prison Wall: This is understated elegance? What was Taniguchi thinking when he decked out MoMA's northern facade in unsightly, instantly dirty-looking corrugated metal siding? And what are those forbidding prison gates, blocking the man-on-the-street from getting a view of the beloved sculpture garden? I was at the City Planning Commission deliberations where they said they wanted some "transparency" from the garden to the street. Instead, it's "Keep Out."

6) Separate Fiefdoms: MoMA promised us that there would be better integration of prints, drawings and photographs with related works in the main collection galleries. With a few exceptions (most notably, German Expressionists), this hasn't happened.

Coming Tomorrow, Part II---My Top 5 List of What's Not to Like About Mega-MoMA.

Can you stand the suspense?


From Ferdinand to Big Bird

Apparently I'm not the only one who wants to tell Maxim Vengerov how to get to Sesame Street.

Michael Reingold, assistant director of the JCC on the Palisades' Thurnauer School of Music, just e-mailed a love note to CultureGrrl, and included this news flash:

I thought you'd want to know that Bob McGrath and Dave Connor from Sesame Street were in the audience---they are both long-time friends of the school---and they spoke with Maxim after the concert. We'll see what happens. Maybe he'll be playing duets with Big Bird soon!


No Scoop After All

In a previous post, I bragged that only CultureGrrl could tell you how my fellow Bronx Science-ite, Daniel Liebskind, got his start.

Then, yesterday, I started leafing through his memoir, Breaking Ground, and saw that this was old news:

When we moved to New York, I took a technical drawing course at the Bronx High School of Science, and I loved it. On the days I had class, I would wake up at five a.m., excited by what was in store. After school, I'd finish my homework as I walked home [talk about multi-tasking!], so that I'd have the rest of the day to practice my technique. I was driven to insane, finger-numbing drawing sessions that lasted well into the night.

Trust me, no one at Bronx Science loved that class the way he did. For most of us, it was an onerous requirement. I wonder what his project was for the next year's follow-up class, the equally maligned Science Techniques Laboratory, for which I drew up plans and constructed a sextant (which didn't work).

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The Hits Just Keep On Coming

Welcome to all you new CultureGrrl readers who have responded "yes" to the question posed tonight in the news section of Artnet magazine: "Ready for a little 'grr' with your culture?"

Now I've got to try to live up to my new billing---"Fearless Art Reporter Lee Rosenbaum." Calling Clark Kent!


Blockbusters, Schlockbusters

[For those of you who just arrived here today, July 19, from the link in Tyler Green's blog, here's my more recent post on the phenomenon of renting exhibitions for big bucks---the Metropolitan Museum's 19th-century European paintings show, traveling next year to Houston and Berlin.]

Yesterday, I raised some questions about Renzo Piano's architecture for the expanded High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Now let's raise some more questions---about the use to which one of its new wings will be put:

The Anne Cox Chambers Wing was specifically designed as a blockbuster magnet, "to bring the world's great art to Atlanta," as museum director Michael Shapiro put it. Beginning in October, it will be venue for three years of changing loan shows from that undisputed masterpiece bastion, the Louvre in Paris.

The question is: How many of those loans will actually come from the Louvre's A-List? The High is paying top dollar for the cachet of the French museum's imprimatur. Olivier Meslay, the Louvre's managing curator for this transatlantic collaboration, told me that the shows are meant to raise some $7 million for the renovation of his museum's decorative arts wing. Atlanta-based donors who have been solicited to support the shows are actually paying, in large measure, for the costs of French construction.

Large loan shows drawn entirely from the permanent collection of one major, world-class museum generally fall into one of two categories: Major masterwork shows, organized while the lending museum is partly or completely closed for renovation; or shows of a few major names, padded with many less stellar works---the tactic of a lender that can't afford to alienate its own public by stripping its walls of too many of its icons.

Louvre Altanta (or "Paris, Georgia"?) looks likely, from the checklists I've seen, to be the latter type. The household names for whom Atlantans may be pining are relatively few. For every Raphael or Poussin, there's a gaggle of small 16th- to 18th-century bronzes of indeterminate authorship. For every Rembrandt or Rubens drawing, there is a sheaf of lesser lights---not quite "schlock," as this post's exaggerated title implies, but not necessarily worth the hefty price exacted of the High, its donors and its visitors.

The proof will be in the seeing. But the proliferation of high-rent shows, whereby major museums beef up their budgets at the expense of other museums, seems like the wrong kind of fundraising.


Vengerov: Full of Bull

If, like me, you regard the 31-year-old Maxim Vengerov as one of the greatest musicians ever to wield a bow, I've got news for you: As much as you may admire his Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, you don't know Maxim to the max until you've experienced his hilarious narration and musical portrayal of the beloved children's classic, "Ferdinand the Bull"---the story by Munro Leaf that you read to your children (and that your parents read to you), about the bull who just liked to "sit and smell the flowers."

Last night at, of all places, the Jewish Community Center in Tenafly, NJ, he applied his usual richness of tone and sumptuous expressivity to a program of Mozart, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, all taken from the playlist of his performance last Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

Skipping the Beethoven, he then invited up to the stage the entire student body of the JCC's music school (for which this was a benefit), and proceeded to demonstrate his prodigious acting and comedic skills. His little listeners (whom he had taught earlier that day) were rapt, except when they were giggling, as he reenacted the familiar tale with expressive body language and just the right note of silly whimsy.

As he had throughout the program, he demonstrated his uncanny ability to extract an extraordinary range of sounds from his instrument. Who knew that a violin could issue such a juicy "moo," perfectly capturing Ferdinand's doting mother? (The composition, by no means child's play, was by Alan Ridout.)

Teachers in the audience were scrambling to find out whether they could get a recording, suggesting a strong potential demand out there for a Vengerov children's DVD. If he hasn't already been booked by Sesame Street, he should be.

It was a case of perfect typecasting: Vengerov IS Ferdinand. His beefy looks suggest he should be butting heads with football players, but, instead, he embodies delicate beauty.

Monday, May 22, 2006



A month after the opening, The New Yorker's architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, finally says his piece, in the May 29 issue, on Renzo Piano's addition to the Morgan Library and Museum. Shouldn't a weekly magazine be right on the news? And shouldn't he have included Columbia University's 18-acre, mega-expansion in Harlem on his list of the New York City projects that Piano is currently designing?

By contrast, the NY Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff weighed in more than two weeks early---the first of five Times scribes to lavish attention and praise on the newspaper's house architect, who also designed the Times' new headquarters, now under construction (and prematurely panned by Goldberger).

What's strange, in both cases, is that neither critic saw fit to comment on what, to my mind, is an architectural flop: Piano's expansion of the High Museum of Art, which opened last November---his most recently completed project in America before the Morgan.

His addition to the High's original Richard Meier building, which made that architect's reputation, was a new direction for Piano, who was best known and justly admired for his stand-alone, intimately scaled, one-collector museums (the Menil, Nasher, Beyeler and Klee galleries).

Perhaps it was Piano's concern for not upstaging or clashing with Meier that made his own structure understated to a fault: The flat expanses of painted metal panels (a similar vocabulary to that of the Morgan addition's exterior) look dull beside the lustrous, curved enamel skin of Meier's masterpiece.

The chief visual interest in Piano's High is the building'’s crown, which houses its skylights. He calls it a "“flotilla of sails."” It looks marvelous in photos taken from above. But from ground level, the "sails"” look more like the top of a picket fence. Even Piano's usual strongpoint, the sensitive use of natural light, is less successful in Atlanta: Perhaps overreacting to criticism of the harsh glare from Meier'’s skylights, Piano engineered elaborately constructed skylights that don'’t adequately illuminate paintings.

For my appraisal of the new Morgan, you'll have to wait for the June issue of Art in America magazine ("Front Page" section).


Is 2006 the New 1990?

I don't want to scare you, but I can't help noticing some striking similarities between the state of the art market in Spring 2006 and the situation in Spring 1990, after which prices went into freefall.

In 1974, the art market collapsed. Sixteen years later, in 1990, it collapsed again. Now, 16 years from that freefall, here are the eerie echoes:

---May 1990: The speculator-fueled auction market crests with the astonishing $82.5 million paid for van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," which had been estimated to go for $40-$50 million. The successful bidder, a representative for Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito, was sitting in the back of Christie's auction room (not the usual perch for big-money bidders). Despite record auction totals, seasoned observers in the room see signs that the market is beginning to soften. They are right: By the fall of that same year, the New York Times declares that "the ebullient mood that characterized art sales throughout the 1980s and as recently as last spring has vanished from the auction rooms." The following summer, Sotheby's and Christie's sales projections for the 1990-91 auction season plummet by 59 and 50 percent, respectively, from the previous year's totals.

---May 2006: Again, speculators have been playing the art market. An unidentified bidder, thought be a representative for a Russian buyer, also buried in the back of the auction room (this time, Sotheby's), ponies up $95.2 million (against a $50 million estimate) for Picasso's "Dora Maar With Cat." Despite the hefty auction totals, dealers and collectors fret afterwards about "inconsistent sales" that "reflect consumer confusion in an overheated market," according to the Wall Street Journal's May 12 recap. "The overall mood of the sales was strangely subdued, and a number of works missed expectations," the Journal reports.

It used to be said that fortunes of the art market were more correlated with the real estate market than the stock market. With the current real estate slowdown, we will soon get to see whether this adage still applies.

Some things don't change. As I wrote in my 1982 book, The Complete Guide to Collecting Art:

In the midst of an art market boom, it is tempting to believe that the rise in art prices is permanent, and there are many self-interested art merchants who are happy to encourage that belief. But while art-market history may not necessarily repeat itself, it is foolish to pretend it never will. If and when a shake-out comes, the same merchants who have touted art as an attractive investment are likely to observe approvingly that "overinflated prices" have come down to "more realistic levels."

Friday, May 19, 2006


Coming Next Week

Speaking of art in France, I've got to spend the rest of today working on my piece about that country for the "Leisure & Arts" page of the Wall Street Journal. (No, I did not retrace the path of The Da Vinci Code!)

Here's what CultureGrrl has in store for you next week:
---The Louvre annexes Atlanta
---More thoughts on antiquities
---My Top-Ten List of things not to like about the new, improved Museum of Modern Art


Duh Vinci

Didn't read the book. Not going to the movie.

I had planned to pay the price of admission to get myself up-to-speed with a pop cultural phenomenon that had completely eluded me. But the review of "The Da Vinci Code" by my favorite movie critic, the Wall Street Journal's Pulitzer-winning Joe Morgenstern, was the deal-killer:

Glazes the eye, muddles the mind and slows the heart.

His was the strongest voice in the requiem sung by almost the entire critical choir. The Wall Street Journal's subscribers-only website (but not, it appears, the print edition) today provides a rundown of the put-downs, from the U.S. to France to Hungary(?!?).

Lou Lumenick, the New York Post's reviewer, garnered a rare solo role at the top of the movie's full-page ad, by breaking from his brethren with a four-star rave. The better known Roger Ebert, whose gracefully written, intelligent reviews are often a reliable indicator of popular taste, will surely bump Lou tomorrow with his three-star "Superior entertainment...What [Ron] Howard brings to the material is tone and style, and an aura of mystery that is undeniable."

As for me, an occupational hazard of being an arts writer is that my relatives are all appalled when I confess that I have not read Dan Brown's masterpiece. My sister-in-law went so far as to buy it for me as a birthday present. I dutifully started to read, but by Page 151, it was clear that I had better things to do with my time.

When does it comes out in Cliff Notes?

Thursday, May 18, 2006


The Clark Does It Right

Every once in a while, I do take the "Grrrr" out of CultureGrrl and try to say something nice.

Kudos, then, to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., for touring 12 of its most important Impressionist masterpieces to small regional museums around the country---not as a money-maker but simply as a collegial collection-sharing initiative. Having just come back from the first leg of their tour, the Renoir, Monet, Degas, Manet, etc., will summer at home during the hot Berkshires tourist season. Then off they go to the San Antonio Museum of Art, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, and Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.

At a time when so many museums are trying to raise big bucks off the backs of their sister institutions by renting out their treasures, it's refreshing to encounter a museum director, Michael Conforti, who disinterestedly wants to share the public's patrimony with a wider audience. (Don't get me started about the Louvre in Atlanta; that's for a future post!)

The last time I can remember a museum's mounting a comparable intiative was the Whitney Museum's program under its now deposed director, Max Anderson (who ran into conflicts with his board and will soon take over the Indianapolis Museum of Art). That ambitious collection-sharing program was funded by Tyco International under its subsequently imprisoned CEO, L. Dennis Kozlowski. Talk about ill-fated!

(Speaking of the umbrella-stand connoisseur, the NY Times reported on Sunday that Kozlowski just agreed "to pay $21.2 million to settle charges of avoiding New York sales tax on 12 paintings, including a Monet, a Renoir and a Bouguereau." That's what first got him into trouble. The rest is history.)

But the Clark doesn't do everything right: Putting an artificial ice skating/hockey rink out back, as part of its planned Tadeo Ando expansion, seems destined to disrupt the ambiance of peaceful contemplation that makes the Clark such a welcome rural retreat. Does every Ando museum need to have a "water feature"? Please rethink this!


Shoutout to Teachout

Thanks to that most prolific polymath of critics, Terry Teachout, for his blogged love-note to CultureGrrl this morning. (See blurb on my masthead, top.) Terry, baby, let's do lunch!


Mondo Condo

Right again, artlings. The answer to yesterday's question is: D) None of the above.

According to the marketers of the Libeskind apartments, "neither article is correct": 12 of the 56 residences, ready for August occupancy, remain unsold. The economics of the commercial building are completely separate from the museum's (unlike MoMA's neighboring Museum Tower, which generated "tax equivalency payments" for the museum).

But the real question is whether Libeskind's jagged, spiky structure, designed to resonate with the nearby Rocky Mountains, will work as a congenial space for displaying art. In a red-flag division of labor, the museum decided to assign its own designer, Dan Kohl, to lay out the interior walls for the galleries, finessing Libeskind's challenging, quirky angles with some traditionally shaped spaces.

This will be Libeskind's first completed project in the United States. Denver chose him as architect before his fame grew as the visionary, if beleaguered, master planner for Ground Zero.

But only CultureGrrl can tell you how he got his start: He was a year ahead of me at the Bronx High School of Science, and I'm guessing that he was one of the very few of my fellow nerds who actually enjoyed wielding a T-square at the much maligned Mechanical Drawing class we were all required to take in the Sixties.

As for me, I won the Bronx Science graduation award for best student in English. Hey, someone's gotta read!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Question of the Day

Okay, artlings, here's the second CultureGrrl quiz (and here was the first one):

Which of the following statements is true about architect Daniel Libeskind's Museum Residences---luxury condos adjacent to his expansion of the Denver Art Museum (which opens Oct. 17)?

A) "There hasn't been a sale since September," as reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 31.

B) "It sold out in just two weekends," as reported in the International Herald Tribune on May 9.

C) It's a money-maker for the Denver Art Museum, just as Cesar Pelli's Museum Tower was for the Museum of Modern Art.

D) None of the above.

(Answer published tomorrow.)


Rethinking Antiquities

I promised in a previous post to say more about Philippe de Montebello's "brilliantly persuasive presentation" at the Association of Art Museum Directors' recent symposium on antiquities collecting. I had asserted in a Feb. 28 Wall Street Journal piece that "the Met should rethink its stated willingness to continue buying antiquities of uncertain provenance." Here's part of what the Metropolitan Museum's director said that made me rethink my position:

Frankly, the refusal to acquire an important antiquity, merely because it cannot be traced beyond, say, an auction in mid-1970, benefits no one. It will remain unknown, unpublished, inaccessible, and most likely driven underground, but not, I’m afraid, through a stroke of providence, to the place from which it came.

So to those who say, "Do not buy an unprovenanced object, no matter how unique, brilliantly conceived, and masterfully crafted," I would ask, as I have done repeatedly, “And what do you propose should be done with that object?” Of course, it is to be deplored that works of ancient art are removed clandestinely from their sites. Much knowledge is lost as a result. But we should not compound that loss by helping the work of art disappear. That would be a violation of our raison d’être and an incalculable loss for scholars, the public, and history itself.

Nevertheless, I was astonished that PdM brought up the case of the Lydian Hoard (called by him the "Lydian Treasure"), surely one of the most problematic cases of a museum's stonewalling for years in the face of strong evidence. The Met only loosened its grip on the Anatolian precious-metal objects on the brink of a trial that was to decide whether they should be returned to Turkey.

In his May 4 speech, PdM conceded that the 6th-century B.C. hoard "turned out to have been illegally excavated from a site in or near Ushak, in the 1960s." He went on to suggest, though, that repatriating these pieces had not been such a great idea:

Now, because one piece has reportedly been recently stolen from the Ushak Museum, press attention has focused on the installation there. In an Apr. 20 article in the Turkish press, the chief officer of the Ushak Culture and Tourism Department stated, and I quote: “In the past 5 years 769 people visited the museum," in total. No further comment is required.

Actually, further comment is required: The issue is not how many people will see an object; if something was stolen, it should be returned.

One thing's for certain: This symposium did nothing to establish common ground between museum directors and archeologists, an objective set forth in introductory remarks by AAMD president Mary Sue Sweeney Price, director of the Newark Museum.

"We cannot run the risk of being unpardonably contentious, even fratricidal," Sweeney Price asserted.

Nice thought.


Boomer Bust

Let's talk about a deplorable pop-cultural phenomenon for a moment, shall we? We are almost at the one-year anniversary of the demise of a very important New York City cultural resource---a particularly great loss to those of my blog readers who are also Baby Boomers. (You two know who you are.)

Tell me why it is that New York City cannot support even one oldies station? Boomers used to be the dominant demographic. Now we're chopped liver. Devotees of WCBS-FM now have to stream it on the Internet or shell out $300 for an HD2 radio. Only then can we savor such classic compositions as "Tutti Frutti" and that epitome of the trashy girl-group genre, "My Boyfriend's Back."

I find myself listening more and more to WQXR, the classical music station, which should be uplifting but is, in fact, quite depressing. One is barraged by ads for nursing homes, home health care, cancer cures and, let's not forget, funeral homes. Are we really that decrepit? And is it universally assumed that there is no young audience for classical music?

However, Rock & Roll IS here to stay, at least in academia: My daughter, a second-semester senior at Cornell, could have graduated early but opted instead to take some "fun" courses, including History of Rock Music. There, at least, Elvis lives (but not Jackie Wilson).


Brits Can't Return Nazi Loot

When it comes to deaccessioning---British museums, by law, can't. That helps bolster the British Museum's argument that it can't ship the Parthenon marbles back to Greece. But it also prevents the return of Nazi-expropriated works to their rightful owners or heirs.

Recently, heirs of Nazi victim Arthur Feldmann contented themselves with a $329,000 payout from the government, in lieu of return of four old master drawings, now in the British Museum, that were seized by the Nazis before they killed him.

But what if another victim or heir wanted the works, not the cash?

A court decision, almost a year ago, indicated that the British Museum trustees can not "meet such moral claims [like the Feldmann heirs'] under existing law:

It is now beyond doubt that, when there is a claim for an object in the British Museum collection which can be proved to have been stolen from a Jewish family by the Nazis, the object cannot be returned without the authority of an Act of Parliament.

This renders partly ineffectual the work that the museum has done to compile a list of works with uncertain World War II provenance.

However, talks are in progress to introduce legislation "to help put right these historic wrongs," according to culture minister David Lammy, quoted recently by BBC News.

What took so long? Could it be that such legislation might open the door to other "moral claims"---from source countries of antiquities, for example?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


How Hilton Kramer Got Wild

It doesn't rank up there with the "Opal Mehta" brouhaha, but let's compare a passage from my Nov. 2 NY Times Op-Ed piece, For Sale: Our Permanent Collection with Hilton Kramer's Deaccession Roulette in the December issue of The New Criterion:

Kramer: The Los Angeles County Museum used to have a triad of bronze sculptures of women by Alberto Giacometti in its “permanent” collection. Now it has two, because one is with Sotheby’s pending a sale.

Me (a month earlier): Until recently, a triad of standing women, signature works in bronze by the Swiss modern sculptor Alberto Giacometti, graced the permanent collection galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But now only two remain. The third, a likeness of the artist's wife, is one of 42 Impressionist and modern works from its "permanent" collection that the museum plans to sell at Sotheby's today and tomorrow.

Kramer went on to say that "one wit recently observed, 'it won’t be long before pragmatic museum trustees sell a Degas Toilette to pay for the toilets.'" I was the wag.

Credit where credit is due?


Getty Givebacks (continued)

I just got off the phone with the Getty's head spokesperson, Ron Hartwig, who said Michael Brand and George Voulgarakis merely handed reporters in Athens the following statement and then left the room---a far cry from the prompt publication of the recent detailed agreement between the Met and Italy:

ATHENS, GREECE— Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture issued a joint statement in English and Greek following a meeting in Athens, Tuesday, May 16. Following is the statement released by Dr. Brand:

“Officials of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture met today with representatives of the J. Paul Getty Museum and had productive discussions.

“In establishing the framework of a good relationship between the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the J. Paul Getty Museum, it was agreed that the representatives of the Museum will recommend to the board of Trustees the return of some of the claimed antiquities in the near future.

“The talks are ongoing and representatives will be appointed to seek resolution of the matter within the next two to three months. Once the requirements of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture are met, a fruitful cooperation which could include long-term loans, can start.”

The talks focused on four objects in the Getty's collection. The Getty's negotiations concerning 52 objects claimed by Italy are expected to resume soon, after the museum completes examining the evidence provided at the first meeting in January.

It appears that Philippe de Montebello's roadmap, involving longterm loans to compensate for givebacks, is gaining traction.


Getty Givebacks

This just in, from Maria Petrakis in Athens for Bloomberg:

The J. Paul Getty Museum's director, Michael Brand, will recommend the return of some antiquities to Greece following talks with Greek officials in Athens.

Earlier today, Getty director Michael Brand met with Greek Culture Minister George Voulgarakis, to discuss Greece's claims.

Some of the most savvy art-media types I know don't realize that you can get free access (without the onerous subscription fee) to Bloomberg's cultural content just by going to, clicking "News & Commentary" (at the top), and then "Culture" (in the lefthand column).

There you can enjoy theater reviews by John Simon, architectural commentary by James Russell and some great coverage on the antiquities mess by Vernon Silver from Italy.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Philharmonic's Bells and Whistles

Something new, informative and enjoyable on the NY Philharmonic's website: video clips of composers, conductors and musicians involved in upcoming performances.

Most poignant is the clip of the 97-year-old Elliott Carter, explaining that his "Allegro scorrevole" of 1996 was inspired by a bubble in a painting by Chardin, which "symbolizes the fragility of life...finally disappearing into the sky."

Unfortunately, when I played the clip, there was a bit of unintended poignancy, as Carter's voice and movements stopped in mid-sentence, victim of a technical glitch.


A Touch of Crass

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

How else to explain the Cleveland Museum of Art's including in its press materials a glossy 12-page color brochure promoting "Baker Hostetler: Counsel to Market Leaders"---the corporate sponsor for the upcoming Barcelona and Modernity show, co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

It used to be that corporations merely required a credit line. Then it was a one-page self-promotion, enumerating the ways in which the sponsor was as brilliantly innovative and creative in its business as Leonardo was in art.

We know it's getting harder to attract corporate sponsors, but what's next---a booth at the museum exhibition, to solicit new clients?


Medieval Cloisters for the 21st Century

Who would have thought it would have taken this long for the state-of-the-art Metropolitan Museum of Art to install humidity controls to protect its medieval frescoes and painted wooden sculptures? According to curator-in-charge Peter Barnet, who sat next to me today at the Met's press lunch, The Cloisters are at last emerging from the dark ages of climate control---part of the much needed longterm renovation of the Met's branch at the northern tip of Manhattan. He claimed that the treasures housed in the 68-year-old outpost suffered little damage (other than minor paint chipping), despite being subjected to so many years of fluctuating humidity. The leaking roofs? Let's not go there.

The new-and-improved Cloisters also includes a cafe and the introduction of audio guides, which the museum insists will enrich visitors' understanding, "without intruding on this special atmosphere"---the tranquility treasured by the retreat's devotees.

Perhaps the press-release writers need to re-read Philippe de Montebello's comments in the book Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, in which the Met's director deplores "those horrid audio machines."

Then again, whose voice is it that emanates from those infernal contraptions...?

Sunday, May 14, 2006


AAMD's Statistical Shenanigans

Playing catch-up with all the news that occurred during my French sojourn, I've just read the latest edition of the Association of Art Museum Directors' annual survey, which is more remarkable for what it doesn't say than for what it does.

The most interesting statistic is that an impressive 70% of the 129 museums responding to AAMD's survey reported "a significant increase" in individual support over the previous year.

But the total dollar amount of this increase---a much more meaningful figure---is left out. We are only told the percentages of museums that experienced upward or downward changes in certain benchmarks of institutional health (various forms of support, overall revenue, annual attendance, exhibition and acquisition activity, etc.).

We are kept in the dark as to the the actual dollar amounts underlying these statistics. All we are told is, for example, what percentage of institutions experienced increases (47%), decreases (16%) or no change (37%) in overall revenues. How much the increases amounted to is anyone's guess.

Museums may indeed be enjoying "stability," as the report claims. But this frustratingly incomplete survey doesn't really prove it.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


St. Louis Says "Show Me"

News Flash: Last night, the Associated Press reported that Brent Benjamin, director of the St. Louis Art Museum, has not backed down in the face of Zahi Hawass's threat to haul his museum into an Egyptian court over the ownership of a 3,200-year-old mummy mask (see my previous post).

"Nothing that we have seen to this date supports his claim," said Benjamin, who has requested further documentation from Egypt.

No museum official wants to face the ordeal of a foreign trial, as now endured by Marion True, formerly of the Getty. But no one wants to give away objects held in public trust, based on insufficiently substantiated claims. The scenario unfolding in the "Show Me" state will be watched with intense interest by every antiquity-owning museum in this country. It remains to be seen whether Hawass is drafting a criminal indictment or Benjamin has played his cards right by calling Egypt's bluff.


De Montebello/Hoving Contretemps

I happened to be at the right place at the right time to overhear this telling exchange, occurring during the lunch break of the May 4 symposium on "Museums and the Collecting of Antiquities," organized by the Association of Art Museum Directors.

The always provocative Tom Hoving caught up with his successor as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, right after PdM's brilliantly persuasive presentation (more on that in future posts).

TOM HOVING: You are not dynamic enough.

PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO: You used to be too dynamic.

That says it all.


Chauvet Charade

Almost didn't get back yesterday from Dordogne. Had to sneak into a side entrance of Bordeaux airport, whose main access roads and entrances were blocked by a surprise strike by maintenance workers. Vive our Columbia University tour director, the well-named Jacques Charmant, who devised our stealth airport invasion on the spot!

Can't write now about my art-ventures in Dordogne, which I must save for the WSJ. But I can tell you this: The fabulous 32,000-year-old cave paintings at Chauvet, ostensibly off-limits to the public from the moment they were discovered in 1994, can be accessed by ordinary mortals who are neither scholars nor VIPs, but are endowed with preternatural persistence and patience. I can say no more, except that you must find out who's in charge and get your name on a list. I myself have not yet seen Chauvet; it is east of Dordogne, and time did not permit.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


But Before I Go...

Look for my slightly contrarian appraisal of the expanded Morgan Library and Museum in the "Front Page" section of Art in America's June/July issue. One of the things I like about Art in America is that they allow me to write my own headlines:
The Atrium that Ate the Morgan

If you don't know by now that I'm a bit of a contrarian, you haven't been paying attention!


En Vacances

Off to Dordogne, for a (partly) working vacation, on assignment for the Wall Street Journal. After brushing up with a French phrasebook, I happened upon an a phrase guide for art-show openings---a very atypical, hilarious page in the May issue of Art in America (where I'm contributing editor).

A couple of sample translations from "a PHRASE GUIDE for the spring art season," pen-drawn by artist Amy Sillman (Page 53):

"Challenging, difficult work!" (Really gets on my nerves.)

"You have such integrity!" (No career.)

No more posts till May 13, at the earliest. Au revoir!


A New Nouvel Guggenheim?

Fresh from the Guggenheim Rio fiasco, French architect Jean Nouvel, apparently a glutton for punishment, may be taking his chances on yet another proposed Guggenheim Museum---this time, in Abu Dhabi. The ARTnewsletter doesn't name an architect in its May 9 report:

According to an informed source, Abu Dhabi representatives have made a $2 million deposit to the [Guggenheim] foundation in connection with their discussions.

Nouvel told me, at the Apr. 10 New York press briefing for his new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, that he was scheduled to leave directly afterwards to discuss his Abu Dhabi plans with the Guggenheim's Tom Krens.

Given Krens's long and growing track record of unrealized projects, it's astonishing that foreign governments keep throwing money at this visionary (but seemingly delusionary) master builder.

How many years ago was Bilbao?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


MoMA Does It Right

With all the criticism hurled at the year-old mega-MoMA, it's time to heap some praise on the Museum of Modern Art's enlightened collecting policy, as exemplified by its new show of contemporary art from the collection of Edward Broida. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum, which has allowed the flow and logic of its galleries to be disrupted by individual collectors' fiefdoms (Linsky, Annenberg, Gelman, etc.), MoMA has always showcased collectors' gifts in special exhibitions, and then integrated those works with the rest of its collection.

MoMA caught undeserved flak for following this long-established policy with its 2005 display of the UBS collection. What the critics should have complained about (but didn't) was not that this was a "corporate" show, but that it included works still privately owned by UBS, in addition to those given to MoMA. This broke with MoMA's own policy of not displaying private collections unless they are promised. UBS can now, if it chooses, do what so many other corporations have done once the art-collecting CEO (in this case, MoMA trustee Donald Marron) leaves the business: It can sell these works, their value enhanced by MoMA's prestigious imprimatur.

But back to Broida: As told to me by Peter Reed, senior deputy director for curatorial affairs, the museum labored mightily to get this show up in time for the terminally ill collector to see it. Sadly, it was not quite fast enough: He died of cancer last month.

At the press preview today, curator Ann Temkin tellingly observed that Broida almost never sold his art but collected "for the long haul...a welcome counterpoint to the very 'for the moment' approach to collecting art right now."

Best-in-show: Jennifer Bartlett's glorious 1976 tour de force, "Rhapsody"--- all 987, one-foot-square panels of it---getting a rare, full-scale installation and looking as if it had been made for MoMA's atrium space. This success suggests that MoMA's intimidatingly cavernous anteroom might best be conquered by commissioning site-specific works, as done by the Tate Modern for its enormous turbine hall.


A Touch of Crass

ANNOUNCING: A new, recurring CultureGrrl feature, highlighting those bad-taste, "what were they thinking?" moments at arts institutions that ought to know better.

First up: the New-York Historical Society, in cahoots with the New York Times, offering online and in the newspaper "a special collection of limited-edition prints from the original, hand-colored engravings of wildlife artist John James Audubon." There are 22 birds in all.

Drawn from the Society's collection, these so-called limited editions---each one 1,500 copies strong---are likely to be hawked (pardon pun) for a long, long time. The Times has been inflicting these ads on us since at least last summer---one just yesterday, Page 7 of the Business section. Where is Michael Kimmelman when we need him?

For your $495, you also get "a certificate of authentication." Authentic what? Modern reproductions of 19th-century prints?

Monday, May 01, 2006


Everyone's a Critic

I love it when I get treated like a member of the naive public instead of like the smart-aleck I am. Here's a survey that the NY Philharmonic just e-mailed to me, to see how I liked the concert that I blogged about yesterday:

How much did you expect to enjoy this performance prior to attending? Select a number from 1 to 5, where 5 means you expected the performance to be Extremely Enjoyable for you and 1 means Not At All Enjoyable.

And on the same scale, with 5 meaning Extremely Enjoyable and 1 meaning Not At All Enjoyable, how enjoyable was the performance for you?

Arts performances can affect people in different ways. Can you describe what this particular arts experience was like for you---the sort of feelings and thoughts you had during the concert? (Please be as specific as possible.)

How satisfied were you with the following aspects of your concert experience?
Overall concert experience
The orchestra
The conductor
Special guests
Guest soloist
Program selections
Acoustics/sound quality
Your seats
Price of your tickets
Ease of purchasing tickets

How would you rate this concert in terms of its value for the money?

They asked about how much I paid for my tickets, my familiarity with classical music, how much I enjoy attending classical concerts and how many I attended in the past year. Finally, various demographic-related questions: gender, age, education, employment status, race and income (which I never answer).

All this, no doubt, in the continuing, urgent quest to serve old audiences and attract the new. Maybe instead of applauding after each piece (or each movement, as was the case with this particular audience), we should take a vote.

At least the Philharmonic's questions were more sensible than an interminable phone survey the Metropolitan Opera once subjected me to. Those wacky queries included whether one of my primary motives for attending opera was having a chance to dress up in fancy clothes!

Do you think Bernard Holland gets to take these surveys?


View from the Chorus

While NY Times readers were getting their update on the Metropolitan Opera's Joseph Volpe-Peter Gelb transition on Page One of this Sunday's Arts & Leisure section (perused by subscribers on Saturday), I was getting the inside gossip from a longtime member of the chorus. Resting between Lohengrin and Tosca, she happened to be dining at the table next to ours in Bistro Cassis, a thronged pre-theater eatery (excellent duck).

We struck up a candid conversation, and in her own best interests, I'll protect her anonymity (even though she gave me her business card after I asked her name and informed her that I was an arts writer). Let's just say that she raised her well-trained voice in strong support of the impending change in the general managership, and she firmly believes that artistic director James Levine would join the chorus in that refrain. In suggesting that Volpe has at least as many detractors as admirers, the Times got it right.

I observed to her that I attended the Met a lot less than usual this year, because there's so little of Levine (spread thin between the Met and the Boston Symphony) and so many no-name conductors. The chorus's sentiments exactly, she agreed. (There's even less of Levine than was planned, as he recovers from rotator-cuff surgery.)

But she unleashed her most full-throated criticism at Valery Gergiev, whose work I had admired as the one consistently satisfying element in the bizarrely staged Tchaikovsky rarity, "Mazeppa," on March 25

"You don't conduct like this," my confidante declared, loosely wiggling her fingers up and down, in mockery of Gergiev's minimalist style. She indicated that he's hard to follow, and that some orchestra members had declined to work with him.

That chorus member and this audience member, alike, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Riccardo Muti in the Met's pit. The overture to "La Forza del Destino," his brilliant encore March 4 at Carnegie Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic, outshown everything on the printed program and promised us the grandest of Grand Opera when he arrives at Lincoln Center. La Scala's loss, our gain!

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